School-to-Work Policy Insights from Recent International Developments

Publication December 1996

In countries where young people have been relatively successful in both achieving high academic standards and making smooth transitions to employment–notably, Germany and Japan–employers have taken major responsibility for their training. German employers play a lead role in the famous “dual system.” Japanese employers provide extensive training to recent school graduates after hiring them. Policymakers in other countries have therefore been attempting to emulate this success by increasing employer involvement in the training of young people.

Now the emergence of a more “learning-intensive” economy poses new challenges, both for countries with hitherto successful systems and for others. Employment is becoming increasingly fluid, occupational boundaries are changing or dissolving, and more jobs are temporary. Continual learning is a more important part of work, both because some organizations are giving more responsibility to front line staff for solving problems and improving procedures, and because more people are obliged to move from one employer to another. Organizations are seeking to promote learning and at the same time contain the cost of training through “on-line learning” strategies such as cross training within work teams, job rotation, and skill-based pay.

Traditional forms of education do not provide the best preparation for this emerging economy. Vocational education has tended to become too focused on specific skills and occupations that are likely to change in the future. Traditional academic education by itself is also inadequate because it does not equip students to apply their abstract knowledge or to learn in the context of practical problem solving. In response to the perceived insufficiency of traditional education and training to prepare young people for more learning-intensive work, recent policies in many industrialized countries are converging on four principles:

  1. New curricula should be created that integrate vocational and academic studies.
  2. Occupational and educational performance standards should be explicitly related to each other.
  3. To prepare for learning-intensive work, initial education and training should include a certain amount of work-based learning for all students.
  4. Employers and educators, including both vocational and academic educators, must share both responsibility and power in new school-to-work systems.

The first principle is the most fundamental from the perspective of U.S. policy because it affects how the others are implemented. Work-based learning, performance standards, and school-business partnerships often occur in countries that maintain strict separation between occupational training and academic education. These practices, by themselves, will not achieve the integration of vocational and academic education that is now being recognized as desirable in most countries.

To prepare individuals for work that demands autonomy and continual learning, many employers now call for education that promotes high-level thinking skills for all students, not just for the elite as in the past. Vocational education, which in many countries traditionally has offered practical training for students who were considered to possess relatively low academic ability, is now being reformed and in some places radically reconstituted. Reforms include strengthening the academic content of vocational preparation, as in the program of study for the French vocational secondary diploma instituted in 1986. In Germany, where many apprentices have traditionally received a high level of theoretical instruction as part of their training, there have been efforts in recent years to bolster the academic content even more. Countries are also making it easier for vocational graduates to pursue further studies at the university level, as in Germany, where 30% of university students in 1994 had completed apprenticeships in the dual system. These changes are intended to attract larger numbers of intellectually talented students into vocational programs, to give them sufficient theoretical grounding to deal with changing technology, and to prepare them for continual problem solving.

As change proceeds in this direction, the line between vocational and academic education becomes less distinct. Instead of serving as an alternative to general education, vocational education becomes a method for promoting it. For example, in 1991, Britain began developing General National Vocational Qualifications, which enable students to qualify for the university through courses of study that focus on broadly defined industries. In 1994, Japan started offering a new “integrated course” that permits high school students to design individual study sequences preparing them for both careers and higher education. These initiatives to start blending vocational and academic education mirror the increased merging of production and learning in the workplace.

Formal standards and certification procedures, which specify what individuals should know and be able to do, are important elements of a school-to-work system. Many countries are now re-examining their standards or establishing new ones. Countries with well-established occupational training systems have been reducing the numbers of specific occupations to promote workers’ flexibility, and including more generic work skills. But occupational and academic standards have usually been defined separately. These changes in occupational criteria can be carried out without bridging the separation between vocational and academic streams. For example, in Germany, where approximately two-thirds of the youth population participates in apprenticeships, the reform of vocational standards affects most young people but does not entail changes in the academic curriculum of upper secondary schools (Gymnasien) geared to university preparation.

Other countries are trying to develop vocational credentials that can serve as a step to university and other forms of higher education. England and Scotland have made some progress in this regard. The Netherlands and Denmark have developed vocational routes to higher education. Growing numbers of young Germans who graduate from academic high schools are completing apprenticeships before going on to universities, and the theoretical preparation of German apprentices is becoming even more rigorous. Countries that are following this path sometimes invoke the goal of achieving “parity of esteem” between vocational and academic education. No country has yet developed a unified secondary school structure based on one set of credentials for both vocational and academic studies, but current reform plans in Scotland call for an integration of many previously separate vocational and academic programs while still maintaining separate vocational credentials for many students. The state of Victoria in Australia has achieved a relatively complete integration of the formerly separate vocational and academic secondary school systems, including new curriculum and assessment methods (Raizen, Sellwood, Todd, & Vickers, 1995).

Because one hallmark of the emerging economy is the necessity for continual learning in the context of work, a logical implication for initial education and training is that schools should give young people some experience in work-based learning. By gaining practice in the deliberate use of work to develop knowledge and skill, young people should be better prepared for a lifetime of on-line learning at work. There is some evidence from France that this is so. Two basic strategies for work-based learning are classic apprenticeship and school-supervised work experience. In a classic apprenticeship, trainees have some of the rights and benefits of regular employees as well as some special entitlements.

The German dual system is the biggest example of this kind. Several countries, including Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain, have recently created new apprenticeship systems or expanded existing ones. The same countries and others, including France, Korea, and Sweden, have also taken major new initiatives to expand work-based learning for students who are still under school supervision.

While some students in lower secondary or middle school participate in school-supervised work experience that is broad-based and exploratory, most of the newly created work-based learning is for upper secondary students and is still tied to vocational education with no connection to academic subjects. Unlike some incipient efforts in the United States, most of the new initiatives in other countries do not attempt to combine work-based learning with an integrated curriculum designed both to prepare young people for work and to maintain their option of enrolling in a university or other selective institution of higher education.

One form of school-supervised work experience is school-based enterprise, which engages students in production of goods or services for other people as part of a class or related school activity. Denmark recently has expanded the use of school-based enterprise in vocational education to supplement the number of training places available in outside firms. Some German apprentices spend a portion of their time in school-based enterprises within enterprise-based schools. Like other forms of school-supervised work experience, school-based enterprises both in other countries and in the United States have mainly been part of vocational education, although a British initiative in the 1980s promoted mini-enterprises within the general academic curriculum.

Development of work-based learning and links between occupational and academic skill standards call for increased sharing of power and responsibility between educators and employers. In countries where schools still carry the main responsibility for education and training, the role of employers has increased. For example, in recent years, employers have taken a more active part in the governance of work-related education and training in Australia, Britain, and France. However, both in these countries and in Germany, where employers traditionally have had a major say, the employers’ participation in governance has been limited to vocational education. Employers still exert little influence on the curriculum of secondary schools or programs whose primary mission is to prepare students for selective institutions of higher education.

This report concludes that industrialized countries in Europe, Asia, and Australia are pursuing reforms similar to those under way in many American communities: overcoming traditional distinctions between vocational and academic curricula, and combining the two with work-based learning in an integrated course of study that prepares students both for careers and for college or university. Since every country has its own unique set of institutions, the reforms take a different shape in each context. Some countries are just beginning to move in this direction; others are continuing a process begun decades ago. In spite of the differences, the fact that most industrialized countries have now decided to undertake similar changes suggests that the reasons for them are strong and pervasive.

Stern, D., Bailey, T., & Merritt, D. (1996, December). School-to-Work policy insights from recent international developments. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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